Team Obama plays 'let's make a deal' on Romney taxes. Risky?

The Obama campaign made this offer Friday: Release five years of returns and we won't demand more. But that does not address Mitt Romney's concern that he will face more attacks on the content of his returns. Team Obama could face diminishing returns with its tactic.

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney leaves after a news conference at Spartanburg International Airport in Greer, S.C., Thursday.
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Following Mitt Romney’s statement Thursday that he “never paid less than 13 percent” in income taxes, the Obama campaign is playing Let’s Make a Deal: Release five years of tax returns, and we’ll stop asking for more.

“Governor Romney apparently fears that the more he offers, the more our campaign will demand that he provide,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote to Romney’s campaign manager in a letter Friday.

“So I am prepared to provide assurances on just that point: If the governor will release five years of returns, I commit in turn that we will not criticize him for not releasing more – neither in ads nor in other public communications or commentary for the rest of the campaign.”

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Moments later, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades shot back a reply that ignored the question:

“Hey Jim, Thanks for the note. It is clear that President Obama wants nothing more than to talk about Governor Romney’s tax returns instead of the issues that matter to voters, like putting Americans back to work, fixing the economy, and reining in spending,” Mr. Rhoades said in an e-mail copied to the media.

With its gambit, Team Obama doubled down on its tactic of hounding the wealthy Romney on his tax rate. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid claimed last month that Romney paid no taxes for 10 years, but has refused to provide any evidence or name his source. The issue faded with the naming of Rep. Paul Ryan as Romney’s running mate last Saturday, but now it’s back – and like a dog with a bone, the Obama campaign won’t let go.

The upside for President Obama is that it reinforces the notion that Romney has something to hide and helps keep him “underwater” on likability in polls. The downside is that the negative approach begins to hurt Mr. Obama more than it helps.

Mr. Messina’s deal is also disingenuous. It does not address Romney’s stated concern over releasing more taxes: that the Obama camp would find more details in newly released returns on which to attack.

In January, Romney released his 2010 return and an estimate for 2011, launching a spree of attacks over his relatively low tax rate and his investments in off-shore accounts. In 2010, Romney paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent on $21.7 million in income, which was mostly from investments.

Last month, in an interview with ABC News, Romney was asked whether he had ever paid less than the 13.9 percent he had paid for 2010. He said he was “happy to go back and look,” but had yet to provide an answer. An analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that the 13.9 percent rate put him in the middle quintile of tax rates paid by the American public.

On Thursday, Romney gave his answer, in reply to a question at a news conference.

“I did go back and look at my taxes, and over the past 10 years I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent year is 13.6 or something like that. So I paid taxes every single year,” he told reporters in Greer, S.C.

Romney’s wife, Ann, has also spoken out on the issue.

In an interview with the NBC show “Rock Center,” which aired Thursday, Mrs. Romney said that she and her husband have been “very transparent [as] to what’s legally required of us,” although, in fact, there is no law that requires a presidential candidate to reveal tax returns. The custom of releasing returns was started by the candidate’s father, George Romney, when he ran for president in 1968.

“The more we get attacked, the more we get questioned, the more we get pushed,” Mrs. Romney said on NBC.

Jumping into the tax fray with an edge of irritation could prove risky for Mrs. Romney. Candidate’s wives are expected to stay positive and upbeat, and not get into the mud with the candidates. Her reaction may only fuel the Obama campaign in its effort to keep the issue alive.


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